Recently, a friend asked me to clarify the halachik position on Bat Mitzvah celebrations. In response, I reviewed the relevant sources which include a halachik responsa written by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the greatest halachik authorities of the 20th century. In the context of his responsa, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein questions the educational value of the Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations of his time. Since his passing in 1986, new programmes have been created to enhance the educational experience of these celebrations. But with Jewish life cycle celebrations becoming increasingly expensive, we need to urgently consider whether these celebrations are not only educationally productive but financially moral as well.
The book of Leviticus (Vayikra) opens with a detailed description of some of the various tabernacle and temple offerings. Depending on their function, the offerings ranged from plain flour to expensive livestock, from voluntarily presented offerings to mandatory ones, and from those offered on behalf of individuals to those offered on behalf of the nation and beyond. Several times in the text, a more economical alternative to the offering in discussion is introduced by the phrase: “But if his [or her] means are insufficient…”. Clearly, the Torah is sensitively presenting the poor with affordable alternatives in order not to exclude them from the experience of presenting offerings, just because of their financial means.
There may be, however, an additional directive in these words. Imagine the joy of a new mother arriving at the temple, possibly in the company of her family and friends, to present the special offering uniquely prescribed for new mothers. Or consider the cathartic experience of a person who appears at the temple to present an atonement offering, possibly also in the company of his family and friends. Naturally social, people would surely enjoy experiencing these important events in the company of others. Easily, they could find themselves socially pressured to present offerings that are beyond their affordability. In an ancient economy based on subsistence farming and livestock, these offerings could be quite expensive. People might become inclined to take loans in order to purchase these offerings. Wisely, the Torah identifies this human weakness and encourages people to worship and celebrate only within their financial abilities by stating that when means are insufficient, a more economical alternative is available and should be chosen.
Celebrating our life cycle events are often genuine sources of joy and pride. Too often however, encouraged by social psychological and other pressures, people host celebrations they simply cannot afford. Sadly, the financial burden people irresponsibly place themselves under, literally destroys lives and relationships. This is exactly what the Torah tries to avoid when repeatedly introducing economical alternatives with the words: “But if his [or her] means are insufficient”.
Although celebrating within a responsible budget is primarily the duty of the hosts themselves, it is nevertheless a responsibility that must be shared by everyone in the community. Parents, for instance, must be aware that their children will invite their friends to celebrate with them. Even when an expensive celebration is within the family budget, invited children will then go home to their parents and request similar celebrations. This places immense pressure on the parents. Modesty should therefore be maintained, even when people are fortunate enough to indeed afford costly celebrations. This applies to everything in life; celebrations, cars, housing, vacations, furniture, etc.
When celebrating the life cycle events we are blessed with by Hashem, let us remember the words in Micha (6:8) “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what Hashem seeks from you: Only the performance of justice, the love of kindness, and walking humbly with your God”.